Archive for January, 2009

Bo: The Hour Passes By

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bo

What a week we’ve had: lots of bad news about the economy, and for the
first time in many years, an American governor has been impeached and
removed from office. It’s amazing to me that former Gov. Blagojevich
assumed a confrontational stance with the state legislature right till
the very end, when almost anybody who follows the news knew that he’d
be expelled from office. At any point before a few days ago, the
former governor of Illinois could have apologized and resigned with
dignity, thus preserving some chance of reentering public life, in
some form or another, in the future.

Of course, egocentrism which denies incipient reality is hardly a
modern phenomenon. In our haftarah this week, the prophet Yirmiyahu,
or Jeremiah, announces a prophecy of destruction against the Pharaoh
of his day, predicting that Egypt would be defeated by competing
empires and humbled for its arrogance. The Pharaoh of the haftarah,
like the Pharaoh in Exodus who appears in this week’s Torah portion,
Bo, is portrayed as a stubborn and prideful man:

” There they called Pharaoh king of Egypt:
‘ Braggart who let the hour go by.’ ” (Yirmiyahu/Jeremiah 26:17)

This verse causes the commentators some consternation, and there are
various interpretations of the Hebrew. Hirsch, for example, renders
the verse as “Pharoah is in the noisy turmoil, he has allowed the
appointed time to pass by,” and posits that the reference was to a
battle with the Babylonians in which Pharaoh’s army showed up too late
for its strategy to work and was thus soundly defeated.

Perhaps a simpler explanation is that Pharaoh, like everybody else,
has many chances in his life to do t’shuvah [repentance/ returning],
but rather than turn from his wicked ways, he pursues his course till
the bitter end, and meets his fate (according to our text) at the
hands of the Babylonian king and his army. The Pharaoh of our
haftarah- like the earlier Pharaoh in Moshe’s day- faced opportunities
to change, to grow, to admit his mistakes, to choose a different path,
to retreat from destructive pursuits, but he let those moments pass
by, until it was too late to avert the consequences of his impunity.

It’s not only kings- or governors- who must learn that the humble path
of t’shuvah can bring reward in this world, if not the next world as
well. A willingness to admit our mistakes, to give up the false
appearance of perfection, is a sign of great inner strength. Yet too
often we wait too long, letting the hour go by, letting the chance at
reconciliation fade, too preoccupied with the demands of ego to
nurture the growth of the soul.

I might even rephrase our verse above: it is the way of braggart
Pharaoh to let the hour go by, to leave unachieved what the simplest
word of modest and generous love might accomplish. Instead, Pharaoh
would rather be defeated that be humbled. Seen this way, Pharaoh is
not a person, as such, but a part of the human personality: we each, I
think, have within us a that hardness of heart which would rather face
armies than confess our sins and failures.

Pharaoh let the hour go by, but we don’t have to. We have the choice
to embrace this moment, this hour, as the one in which we turn back to
our best and truest selves.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Vaera: The Nile is Mine

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vaera

Perhaps it’s warming up around here just a bit, but certainly our
haftarah this week is a “hot one.” The prophetic text associated with
the Torah portion Va’era is primarily about Egpyt- or, in Hebrew,
“Mitzrayim,” the “narrow place”- and its eventual downfall. In the
Torah portion, Moshe confronts Pharaoh and demands freedom; in our
haftarah, the prophet Yechezkel (Ezekiel) portrays Egypt as a
treacherous ally that will be punished by God in the days to come.

According to our Etz Hayim commentary, the ancient nation of Israel
tried to make an alliance with Egypt when the Babylonians were
besieging Jerusalem around 586 B.C.E. The prophet scorns those who
would place their trust in evil nations, and regards Mitzrayim as
especially arrogant:

“Thus said the Lord God:
I am going to deal with you, O Pharaoh king of Egypt,
Mighty monster, sprawling in your channels,
Who said,
My Nile is my own;
I made it for myself.” (Ezekiel 29:3)

This latter phrase is repeated a few verses later:

“And they shall know that I am the Lord — because he boasted, ‘The
Nile is mine, and I made it.’ ” (Vs. 9)

Now, we know Egypt did a terrible thing in enslaving the Israelites in
the days of Moshe, but what’s so bad about claiming “the Nile is mine,
I made it? ” Why should the prophet or anybody else care what Pharaoh
thinks about the Nile river?

To me, what’s striking about these lines is the extraordinary
arrogance of Pharaoh- here representing the nation- in believing that
somehow they made, or control, nature itself. In philosophical terms,
this is called anthropocentrism- the belief that humans are the center
of all value. To be clear: I am making no claims about what the
ancient Egyptians actually believed, and even less so does any
discussion of an ancient text bear on the modern country called Egypt.
Rather, we’re looking at what the prophet believed that Egypt
believed, and which, of course, he found highly problematic.

Yet the message of prophet is more relevant than ever: if we, as
individuals or as a society, believe that the natural world exists
only to meet our needs, if we place ourselves above the ecological web
rather than within it, surely it’s only a short step to deciding that
other people exist only to meet our needs as well. Seen this way,
Egypt/ Mitzrayim is not so much a place, but a worldview, one
concerned with power and taking, with human ego at the center of an
ethics of dominance and violence.

That is what the prophet reject: not a group of people, as such, but a
way of thinking; it’s a rejection of egocentric entitlement, which
almost inevitably leads to the question: how can others serve me?
That, in turn, precludes the really important question: how can I
serve others? If I think everything belongs to me, then I use it; if I
think that I’m a steward for others, including future generations,
then I guard and protect the earth and its inhabitants.

Pharaoh sees the world as his for the taking; the prophetic tradition
sees the world and all its relationships as gifts with the opportunity
for caring.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Shemot: The Day of Redemption

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemot

This week we begin the book of Shemot/Exodus, and there are two
traditions for which haftarah we read: Ashkenazim read from Isaiah and
Sefardim read from Jeremiah. We’ll look at the Ashkenazi haftarah
today, but I actually like the Sefardi one a little better- maybe next
year we’ll look at it.

In any event, the prophet Isaiah, in the first part of the book that
bears his name, alternates between castigating the people and
consoling them- but when he consoles, he uses beautiful images to
convey hope:

“And in that day, the Lord will beat out [the peoples like grain] from
the channel of the Euphrates to the Wadi of Egypt; and you shall be
picked up one by one, O children of Israel!

And in that day, a great ram’s horn shall be sounded; and the strayed
who are in the land of Assyria and the expelled who are in the land of
Egypt shall come and worship the Lord on the holy mount, in
Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 27:12-13)

You can see from the verses above an obvious connection to the Torah
portion- just as God took the people out of Egypt the first time, so
too will there be a great redemption from all the lands where the
Israelites have scattered in that era. The image of the Israelites
being “beaten out” of their exile like grain seems rather stark, but
it conveys a loving attention to each person, being collected as a
farmer collects grain. In other words, even though “redemption” in
Biblical terms means the people as a whole returning to their land,
the prophet says: each individual is important and will not be forgotten.

In the second verse above, Isaiah links redemption to the shofar,
saying that the “strayed” or “lost” [ha’ovdim] will be returned along
with the “expelled” [ha’nidachim.] To me, this suggests that t’shuvah,
or return to our spiritual core, our soul-roots, is always an open
possibility no matter how we “got off track.” Sometimes I just drift
from spiritual awareness- I’m so busy or so distracted by all my tasks
that I’ve lost connection with my own soul and don’t even know it.
Sometimes I’m “expelled”- that is, something (a loss, change, event,
disruption, etc) knocks me into a reactive, fearful or resentful
state- but either way, we are always called back to connect with our
deepest selves, a place of reverence for the Source of Life and an
orientation towards compassionate action.

We don’t always have a shofar to remind us to come home to most
centered self- but we do have reminders: daily prayer, meditation,
study, the practice of gratitude. “That day” of redemption can be
today- if your heart is open.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Vayechi: A Chance to Start Anew

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayechi

This week we are not only concluding the book of Bereshit/Genesis with
the Torah portion Vayechi, we are also continuing another story we
started a few weeks ago, the story of King David’s death and the
succession of his son Shlomo to the throne.

The two stories- Avraham/Yitzhak/Yaakov and David/Shlomo and his
brothers, are connected by the haftarot (plural of haftarah) for the
Torah portions Chayei Sarah and this week’s portion, Vayechi. In
Chayei Sarah, Avraham arranges for his servant to find a wife for his
son Yitzhak, and is finally buried by both Yitzhak and Yishmael after
taking another wife and having more children in his final years. The
haftarah for Chayei Sarah is the opening chapter of 1 Kings, in which
King David is old but his family is divided, with tension and intrigue
between his sons over the succession to the throne.

This week, it is Yaakov who is near death, but in his final days he
“adopts” Yosef’s sons as his own and blesses each of his sons with a
special, personal blessing. Then the haftarah picks up the story of
King David again, in 1 Kings chapter 2: Shlomo (Solomon) is
established as the next king, and David, on his deathbed, gives him
both a general moral exhortation and some very specific instructions
regarding “unfinished business” left over from David’s ascent to power
and long reign.

There is a clear contrast between Yaakov’s blessing of his sons and
David’s request to Shlomo that he take revenge on men who betrayed and
insulted him. It’s quite moving that Yaakov took in Yosef’s sons as
his own, while one feels the tension and strife in David’s household
as the sons compete for power. Remember, too, that years earlier, one
of David’s sons (Avshalom) had murdered another son, his half-brother
Amnon, and Avshalom himself died in a coup attempt some time after
that. (Cf. 2 Samuel 14-20)

So we might look at the two stories of Yaakov and David as different
models of relationship, and on a superficial level, one might say that
the message here is to look at one’s own way of relating to the world-
do we wish to leave a legacy of blessing, like Yaakov, or strife and
revenge, like David?

Yet it’s not so simple, because Yaakov- like David- also had sons who
struggled with each other and Yaakov himself cheated his own brother
and had to go into exile as a consequence. Here’s my interpretation:
the real contrast in these two stories is not in the fathers, but in
the sons. Shlomo, when he becomes king, indeed takes revenge on his
father’s enemies- his reign begins with blood and vengeance.

Yosef, on the other hand, has the power of vengeance in his hands, and
doesn’t use it. In the very last chapter of Bereshit, after Yaakov is
buried, Yosef’s brothers come to him, fearing he will at last take
revenge now that Yaakov is gone- but he doesn’t do it, and instead
promises to sustain them in his role as prime minister of Egypt.

Change is hard- all kinds of emotions are unleashed when families,
groups or even societies go through transitions, even happy ones. Our
challenge is to use every transition as an opportunity to start anew,
letting go of unnecessary resentments and past hurts. What a shame
that David couldn’t do that even on his deathbed, and even Shlomo, the
wise ruler, was not wise enough to avoid taking on his father’s
“unfinished business.”

Yosef, on the other hand, is often called a “tzaddik,” or righteous
man, perhaps precisely because of this: he knew when to forgive and
start anew.

Shabbat shalom,

RNJL

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Vayigash: Common Roots

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayigash

We’re cruising into Shabbat shortly but before we do let’s share just
a few words about this week’s haftarah, taken from the book of
Ezekiel, chapter 37. The dominant image of the haftarah is that of two
pieces of wood, one inscribed with the name Yehudah, and one inscribed
with the name of Yosef, who was the father of Ephraim, who in turn
gave his name to one of the 12 tribes of Israel.

These sticks will be brought together by the prophet, in front of the
people, to represent a healing of the split in the ancient nation of
Israel between a northern kingdom (Yosef/ Ephraim) and a southern
kingdom (Yehudah.) The haftarah is thus linked to the Torah portion,
Vayiggash, by the image of Yehudah and Yosef coming together- in the
Torah portion, it was the two brothers who were reconciled years after
the older brothers threw Yosef into the pit and sold him into slavery,
and in the haftarah, the reconciliation is social and political.

The word for “stick” in the haftarah is “etz,” which can also mean
tree, branch, or chip of wood, according to the haftarah commentary of
Shimson Raphael Hirsch, who understands the image of the two “etzim”
as a bringing together of two branches from the same tree. In this
interpretation, it’s not only about separate kingdoms coming together
politically, but a renewed understanding of the common history and
destiny of the Jewish people- we are branches that share common roots.

Seen this way, the imagery of the haftarah could not be more timely.
The Jewish world is going through rocky times, with scandals,
financial pressures, and the violence in Gaza. We will not all agree
on the right policies to address our challenges, but we can strive to
remember that we are linked together as a worldwide kehillah
[community]. We need each other to achieve the brit shalom – the
covenant of peace- which the haftarah holds out as our hope and our
shared ideal.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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